Books

Book Review

‘Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free’ by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow, co-editor of the website Boing Boing, is a proponent of less restrictive public domain for intellectual property, arguing information doesn’t want to be free, “people do.”

JONATHAN WORTH.COM

Cory Doctorow, co-editor of the website Boing Boing, is a proponent of less restrictive public domain for intellectual property, arguing information doesn’t want to be free, “people do.”

Garth Brooks says he named his comeback album “Man Against Machine” because he believes streaming and downloads are killing music. YouTube? It’s “the devil.”

Cory Doctorow begs to differ. In “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free,” the science-fiction author and Internet advocate lays out a convincing case on behalf of the net benefits of a free and open digital culture.

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The title plays off a famous declaration by Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, who once pointed out the tension between the value of information and the rapidly decreasing cost of disseminating it. Three decades after Brand’s prophecy, the digitization of everything — news on the Web, music on iTunes and SoundCloud, fiction and history on Google Books and e-readers, movies and TV shows on Netflix, Hulu and the devilish YouTube — has made cultural content so inexpensive that artists like Brooks have grown panicky.

Over the past few decades the movie and music industries have cracked down on pirating, and authors have fought the Internet archiving of their work. But “information wants to be free,” Brand argued: That’s what our technological advances are for.

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Doctorow, co-editor of the techy website Boing Boing and a notable proponent of Creative Commons, the movement toward a less restrictive public domain for intellectual property, thinks it’s time to retire Brand’s slogan.


“Information is an abstraction,” he writes. “[I]t doesn’t ‘want’ anything.” Information, he maintains, doesn’t want to be free: “People do.”

New technology has posed a threat to those who claimed control over material for hundreds of years, Doctorow notes. The printing press triggered struggles over access to the Bible. John Philip Sousa argued that the record player would make musicians obsolete. In the 1970s and ’80s, recordable audiocassettes and videotapes became industry scapegoats.

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It’s always had a tinge of immorality to it, this notion of “copying,” which, of course, has been reduced in our age to the simplicity of a few keystrokes. Vehement rights holders such as the major movie studios, recording industry, and others (like Brooks) believe that every Spotify play and every peer-to-peer file share is a drain on their revenue streams.

But in the book’s introduction, Boston musician Amanda Palmer joins Doctorow in rebutting that claim. She compares the new marketplace of an open Internet to the historic tradition of street performance: Just as a busker’s work is supported by a fraction of passersby, artists and content providers could enhance their chances of earning a living as they allow the free flow of their product.

How would that work for artists? Doctorow points out (as have many others) that the seeming demise of the record industry because of the freefall of CD sales has simply led to a market shift, with live performance reaching an unprecedented premium. As Radiohead’s famous self-distribution experiment showed, enough fans of good art will voluntarily pay a going rate (or, unsolicited, more than that) to offset those who choose to pay zero for a particular work.

In the absence of restrictions, piracy is not inevitable, he claims. “Nothing needs to be done to keep honest people honest,” Doctorow quotes the computer scientist Ed Felten, “just as nothing needs to be done to keep tall people tall.”

Conversely, the author cites studies finding that limitations such as blackouts and “digital locks” don’t reduce piracy; in fact, they tend to provoke it.

Some of the topics explained here, from file scrambling to takedown requests (when Disney demands that a YouTube user remove her “Frozen” montage, for instance), will seem like rather dry reading to all but the most active adversaries in the intellectual property wars. But Doctorow effectively holds his audience by offering some intriguing analogies with equally intriguing ramifications.

For example: If the major music labels in their heyday were like the lavish cathedrals of the Roman Catholic Church in medieval times, he writes, the humble smaller churches, the “wee kirks,” that proliferated during the Reformation, decentralized Bible studies and personalized the experience.

“The intimacy and scale of the Reform kirks offered a new kind of fulfillment,” he writes. And worship has taken on a whole new meaning in the age of enlightened screens.

James Sullivan, author of four books, can be reached at jamesg
sullivan@gmail.com
. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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